First of all "professional" is more than just a job-description with a paycheck, it's a mindset. But more on that later.
Over the years the ServerFault community has evolved a rough consensus definition of what that phrase means. There are two broad categories we assess new questions against regarding 'professional capacity'.
- The system being asked about is a production system.
- Knowledge, asking style, and evidence indicate that the asker has the right mindset
(a.k.a. the "is a professional" test)
The first is more concrete and overlaps with a few other items in the FAQ under NOT About. The second is much more complex.
This is more of an exclusionary line. Questions that fail this test are also likely one or more of:
- In the home (failing the anything in a home setting and likely career education points in the FAQ)
- Being built purely to learn new things (failing the career education point in the FAQ)
- Hypothetical what-if questions (failing the career education point in the FAQ, and a big risk of failing the is a professional test, see below)
- Development systems (likely failing the anything in a home setting point in the FAQ, and debatably more topical on StackOverflow)
We've found that scoping "professional capacity" to just production systems does a great job of keeping questions definitely topical.
Of these the development systems item gets us the most pushback. There are very good reasons we eliminate these systems from consideration:
- The SO FAQ states that "software tools commonly used by programmers" is topical.
- The large majority of such questions ServerFault gets relate to setting up development environments on laptops or virtual-machines on laptops.
- Apple laptops and Virtual Box VMs are two areas that professional sysadmins have very little professional experience with.
- Such installs typically use frameworks not actually used in production, such as XAMP/LAMP/MAMP installers, which sysadmins have little experience with.
- Such installs commonly use configuration settings that are against best-practice for production systems, which sysadmins have little experience with.
However, some questions related to systems which are not nominally production may be on topic, particularly if they meet certain criteria:
- The question does not relate to a constraint or condition that would never exist in a professionally managed production environment (such as problems which arise from using virtualbox on a laptop).
- The non-production (eg. UAT) system accurately reflects the production system in all material respects.
- The problem relates to a change that will be migrated into a production environment once the problem is solved.
A question about a non-production system which does not meet at least those three constraints will certainly be off topic.
Is a professional
Good questions are ones that demonstrate that the asker has the mindset of a professional sysadmin. A question that passes this test demonstrates several of the following qualities:
- Shows that they've done some research before coming here, usually by including the results of their failed searches.
- Uses professional language instead of casual, vulgar or shorthand.
- Knows enough about their problem to include the right details instead of all of the details.
- Shows sufficient skill in the technology under question to be able to work on it for pay.
- Demonstrates knowledge of better-practices through how their environment is put together.
Most hypothetical what-if questions frequently fail this test, though some don't.